When I was finally able to escape, I walked through the narrow hallway to my room. As our guest, Kathryn didn’t lift one manicured finger to help us clear the table, instead she studied the pictures in the hall with commentary thrown in every so often. I was still seething from her early comment, and didn’t want to snap on her, since she was after all Mom’s boss.
When I reached my room, the air inside was frigid and the curtains danced in the breeze. It seemed to me that my room was always the coldest, though that was probably due to the fact that I had the room with the backyard facing door. Once I’d shut the door the hot air began to fill the room again. Being in my room relaxed me immediately, and I let out a long held in sigh. Pictures of Mom and me lined the wall over my desk and across from my bed, so that I could always see them. Each frame held its own theme: Mom and I in Nova Scotia, our first time in the US, the one year we’d managed to take a trip to the Caribbean when I was five. My personal favourite frame showed pictures from our Yukon tenting trip when I was seven, this was a while after the fire and Mom thought it would be good for us to get out. Tree sap had gotten stuck in my hair and, being 150 kilometres from the nearest hair dresser, Mom had had to give her a haircut. I’d sported a bowl cut for a good six months after that.
Seeing Lance today, when I hadn’t talked to him before in days, reminded me that I finally had to confront him. About a week ago I’d confessed my feelings for him, and he’d decided to avoid me rather than give me an answer. I had no idea what he was thinking, but he had acted very weird today, and not knowing made me all the more nervous. At least if he shut me down, which I presumed would happen, I could move on. So I turned to my laptop and called Lance, trying to prepare myself for the answer I was expecting. “Hey,” I said with what I hoped was an effortless smile, when he answered my call.
“You’re calling kind of late, aren’t you?” he asked. His voice was a little gruff and I noticed he was already lying in his bed. It wasn’t too late, was it? Only eleven o’clock, and on top of that it was a Saturday. Maybe he had something important to do early tomorrow. I shouldn’t have called, I should have waited until tomorrow, now he was probably mad with me. Well, there was nothing I could do to change it now. Lance propped himself up and leaned against his wall, his shock of blond hair almost fading into the yellow wall.
“About what did you want to talk to me earlier?” I asked back. My voice was low as not to be overheard by Mom or Kathryn, who was still taking up space in the living room. Despite the many redeeming qualities Mom possessed, respecting my privacy was not one she’d mastered. Often I would be talking with a friend and I would find out she’d had her ear pressed to my door the whole time; she had even managed to figure out my password so she could go through texts and computer (luckily for me, I deleted most text streams habitually to keep from using up all my data). After that I had given her a two hour lecture on respecting people’s privacy and personal boundaries, I’d yet to catch her again after that but I was still careful.
Lance sighed a little disgruntled, rubbing a hand over his face. “Fine, let’s just get this out of the way. Persephone, you’re nice. But you and I are never going to be a thing. I’m just not interested in you.” His voice was curt, he hadn’t even bothered to sugar coat it. His voice fell into ugly words and even uglier sentences, I’d expected this response but it still hurt. The words piled up and spilled over again, chocking me and filling me with self-doubt. I didn’t know why this hurt so much, why it elicited the pooling of tears in my eyes, certainly it wasn’t the first time I’d been rejected. Maybe it was just one rejection too much. Maybe it was the fact that I’d actually let myself hope that he liked me back. Was I really so clueless and bad at reading people? And now I’d put Lance in the position where he had to spell out for me what I should have realized all along. How could I do this to him? I should have caught on. This was all so embarrassing, how could I ever face him again? Maybe he would never want to talk to me again, maybe that was a good thing. He wasn’t interested. It wasn’t his fault. Who would want to date me? “Look, I’m sorry Persephone, I didn’t mean—”
Before he could finish his sentence, I quickly closed the screen, cutting off his melodic voice mid tone.
The next day, the weather was disastrously disordered: one moment the sun shone bravely through the dark clouds, and the next the rain beat the ground mercilessly and the wind wretched open and slammed the screen outside my door. I tried very hard just to focus on the weather, and not on the whirlwind of self-doubt in my mind. Most of the day I spent lying on my side perfectly still, watching the black numbers on my clock count the seconds, minutes, and hours, as I listened to the brontide from outside.
Last night’s rejection still sat in the pit off my stomach like a rock, making me feel both lethargic and empty. I’d tried for a while to give myself a pep talk, like Mom had suggested when I fell into the never ending pit of my own thoughts, but that had just made me feel even more ridiculous. It had seemed that even my reflection had mocked me in the mirror. So lying there, wallowing in my own self-pity seemed like the best option. No music, wearing the previous day’s clothes, with the blankets thrown to my feet— because of the ever present childhood fear that something would reach out from under my bed and grab them. The only relief I’d had from my endlessly pathetic internal monologue was when, last night, I’d finally been able to decipher some of Mom and Kathryn’s conversation. Kathryn was, in no humble manner, telling Mom of all the amazing things she’d managed to accomplish in her life thus far. It all sounded like a load of bullshit to me, though listening to it was still sort of funny.
Mom came by my room a lot: she came every three hours on the clock, and at around one o’clock I heard her leave a plate of food by my door along with my daily medication. She asked me what was wrong but I didn’t make any sounds of acknowledgement, my mind was too enveloped in trying to not think about anything. Mom would stay a few moments at my door, trying to coax me out, then leave only to return three hours later and try again. Mom probably believed that something at dinner had triggered this response from me, and was probably now stuck in her own endless train of thought as she tried to figure out what had caused me to become so upset. Mom tried very hard to understand me, but there was no way she could know what I was going through and I had no way to explain it. So in matters like this, I had to handle myself.
I knew that if I just worked up the energy to go to the door and take my medication, it would make me feel better. Bu I just couldn’t, every movement drained what was left of my capabilities to fight my thoughts. Every little twitch of a muscle hurt; I was numb and tired, but incapable of easing my mind into sleep.
It took me a few hours, but finally I was able to work my mind into a peaceful stage of nothingness. I wasn’t able to accomplish it often, but when I did, I relished in the quietness. Being relieved of my anxieties for a while, even more so being conscious for it, was a rare feature. I didn’t take it for granted. For a while everything felt very far away, sort of as if I were trapped in my head and not connected to my body at all, but it felt sort of nice.
Later that evening as the sun was setting and the weather had finally chosen to stay mild, I got out of bed. My bare feet scorched the cold wooden floor as I made my way down the hallway, quiet as not to disturb my mother— who I heard mumbling quietly on the phone in her study. My name came up no short number of times, but I didn’t stay to listen (partially because I was worried to hear what she had to say). The darkness was undisturbed but for the feeble grey-tinted sun light breaking through the curtains, the dying rays cast long shadows against the floor. The eerie quietness of our house, which was usually loud and lively, was enough to get me out the door.
I put on my boots and a jacket, slipped out the door and locking it in place behind me, slipping the key into my pocket. The strong sent of petrichor filled the air, it swirled through my nose so thickly that I could taste it, and put me at ease. Rain had, for some reason, always been a symbol of peace to me: to me rain meant safety and life. As a kid, after the fire, I never slept better then when the rain pounded against our house and the low rumble of thunder was audible in the distance. Now, it stood as a valid excuse to get out of training or stay inside all day. My lungs expanded with fresh, crisp air.
From the side of the house, I grabbed my old bike: teal paint peeled off near the wheels and peddles, a rusty, non-functioning bell adorned the handle bar, and wet gossamer hung off it. I swatted off the cobwebs, dried the seat with my sleeve, and wheeled it through the wet mud to the road. I could just walk and the bike was slightly too small for me, but I needed to move quickly— walking wouldn’t suffice. There was something comforting when I jumped on the bike and started tentatively pushing the peddles. The tires spun slowly, then faster as I gained confidence, over gravel and asphalt; falling into potholes and mounting over speed bumps. I rode past the supply warehouse and the small school I was only a few weeks from escaping, past the track I’d run at just yesterday with Kohl and past the street I knew Lance lived on. I didn’t know where I was headed, but I felt restless enough that just moving would suffice. Maybe I would ride all the way into town, it wasn’t that far off, though I didn’t have any money.
I knew, believe me, I knew how ridiculous it was for me to lock myself in my room all day because someone hadn’t reciprocated my feelings. It was pointless, I knew, to allow someone else to have this impact on me. It was unhealthy and pointless to fall apart because of what someone thought of me. But I had always cared what people thought of me, I wanted everyone to like me even if I didn’t like them, and I was scared to disappoint: this often left me open to get hurt by others.
As I drove past the Guard Shack, the guard on parole stopped me. For a brief moment I was worried (because technically you need to have identification and a permit to enter or exit— they were very strict) however I soon saw that it was Paul, the regular guard. I knew Paul pretty well and didn’t worry about him not letting me through. He was rather old and his memory wasn’t the greatest, so even should he want to, he would probably forget to ask for my identification. His shift was usually about three hours long, so I couldn’t be gone longer than that or I may not be let in.
“Hey, Persephone,” he greeted, putting something down before he came out to see me. “How are you today?” Paul had been the regular guard since I’d come to little prison nearly thirteen years ago, he was kind but our conversations obviously never delved further then idle chit chat.
“I’m okay, how are you?” I asked politely, though not really in the mood for needless chatter.
“Fine, fine. Faith and I have been considering buying from one of those condos they’re building in the Black Forest. They say the view will be wonderful, I think they may be developing the whole place. There’s supposed to be a spa and movie theatre in every condo,” Paul replied, he seemed generally very happy about the idea. I felt bad for my utter lack of interest, but it couldn’t be helped. Though, I thought that tearing down the Black Forest to build even more housing complexes was probably not the best idea. But it was in the name of progress, so I suppose it couldn’t be stopped (or at the very least, not enough people cared to put it to a stop).
“That’s nice,” I replied half-heartedly. “I have some things to do, so I better get going.” Before he could question what those things were or ask for my authorization badge, I sped off.
A few years ago, riding back from town, I’d lucked into a little clearing in the forest while I took a break. The sun always danced through the jade leaves and cast speckled designs of light on the soft grass; the trees were all tall and relatively untouched, even a few animals rustled in the bushes. The clearing was far enough away from the main road that the sound of cars couldn’t be heard if the wind was blowing just right, it was amazing that there were any forests left at all, by the rate they were being torn for timber and room for housing developments. It was a very small patch of tress, true, but it was better than nothing— and even better, I’d found a relatively sturdy old tree house. Yeah, maybe nineteen was too old to play in a tree house, but it didn’t really matter. I loved that spot so much and frequented it so often, that one day I’d decided to hide a blanket and pillow there, after giving my mother a valid excuse I would stay there for hours. The forest was only a couple kilometres from the base and I could easily make it back before it became too late.
Fresh air and exercise would be good for me, they would help relax me.
The bike wheels spun quickly over the rocky shoulder of the road, sending small rocks flying everywhere; I dipped into and out of muddy puddles that had formed. Cars whipped past me and their smell and sound filled the air, still I appreciated the cold wind against my face and the post-rainstorm feeling that hung in the air. When I reached a four way stop I made a left, and already I could see the forest ahead. This only motivated me to peddle faster. There was a car and a small semi-truck parked at the edge of the road, in the autobahn of the highway nowhere near a service station wasn’t exactly a common place to park. Unless someone else had discovered my spot. As I reached the edge of the grass I started pushing my bikes through the wet grass, my feet growing damp but my will undeterred. Down the trail, make a right, then go forward and I’m there.
Only… I wasn’t there. It didn’t look like my spot, but I remembered the directions so clearly. What happened to it? Blue bands covered the trunks of all the trees, other than the ones that had already been cut down. I suppose I’d been so caught up that I hadn’t noticed it before, but on closer inspections all the trees were like that. Hapless stumps dotted the ground where once several hundred year old trees had touched the sky. I guess someone else really had discovered my spot: they were talking to each other in quick German as they took axes to the trees. What were they doing? Or I guess that was evident, but why where they doing it? A small radio sat on a tree stump near the centre and music played faintly in the background.
“I wish they would hurry the fuck up with those trucks already, I’m sick of using this axe. Like a damn caveman!” one of the tree, a man, complained.
“You’re just being lazy…” noted another, female, voice.
For a moment I stood frozen, my thoughts racing to catch up with what was happening. They hadn’t spotted me yet, and I just watched them for a while. “Stop! What are you doing?” I finally called, dropping my bike in the mud.
The three of them turned, looking at me with mixed emotions of confusion and shock. “I thought you said this place was clear,” one of the men said to his partners. His dark eyes narrowed in seeming frustration.
“It was when I checked,” the woman stated.
The first man gestured to me, propping his axe to the side of the tree. Two more axes lay abandoned by a tree as the three as the people moved closer to me. “Then what is she doing here?” he asked the woman. Then turning to me he said, “Frauline, you need to leave now; we’re clear cutting this area.”
I looked at the man in disbelief. “You can’t do that.” My voice became sharp as it always did when I was upset.
“Yes we can,” the woman stated. “And we’re being paid to do so. A nasty tree rot has gotten into the system, we have to wipe it all out. Besides, they need this space for new developments.”
“It’s all for the progress of the country,” the second man threw in, seeming not to want to be left out of the conversation. Again with the damn progress! It was ruining what little natural beauty hadn’t already been destroyed. They couldn’t seriously just cut this place down, could they? It meant so much to me, that had to mean something!
“So you’re just going to cut all these trees down?” I asked. Looking around I finally spotted my former tree house in a small pile near a stump, I knew it was the tree house because my blanket and pillow were propped against the pile. “Can I at least get my blanket and pillow back?”
“Not unless you want to bring tree rot home,” the second man answered.
“That doesn’t even make sense! I’m not a damn tree,” I asked, impatiently.
“Don’t look so sad, it’s just a few trees. There are other forests. Excuse me, frauline, but we have to get back to work.” The first man picked up his axe again and began chipping away at the same tree, the woman did likewise, but the second turned to me.
“We really have to get back to work now… You can get home safely?” he asked kindly, over the background music from the radio and the mumbling from his partners.
I nodded and picked up my bike; I rubbed the mud off the handle bar and seat. “Yeah, I’ll be fine.” I had lost.
“Alright, you be safe then.”
I had begun pushing my bike through the grass again when the first man’s voice stopped me. “Eric, quick!” I turned in confusion to see the second man— Eric— jogging over to his partners. “Frauline, wait a moment!” he called.
The radio’s volume increased as the group grew quiet. There were a few beats of a cuckoo and then through the tension I heard a low automated voice, “—All citizens within a fifteen kilometre radius of Hamburg are asked to seek shelter. A fallout shelter if one is easily available, a cellar or basement if not. Those outside the advisory limits are asked to listen for further instructions.” Before I knew it we were all running through the mud and water to get out of the forest. One of them had grabbed my hand and was pulling me along, fortunate for me, as the danger had yet make itself present. My feet pushed mechanically through the slippery ground and my other arm lay limp at my side, and my mind was trying to fit the broadcaster’s words together.
“What’s going on?” I asked. I didn’t know what the danger was, but something about the advisory on the radio had given me chills: the siren, the automated voice, I didn’t know what for but it was a warning. My legs began responding to my commands again and soon my strides were over taking theirs.
“Where should we go? The nearest city is Hamburg and we can’t go there,” the woman said, her voice shrill and audibly strained with fear. As we approached the street, Eric pulled out a set of keys and unlocked the small car I’d seen parked by the side of the road.
“The base! I live on a Canadian Army base just a few kilometres south of here,” I declared as we all piled into the car. Eric began his car and started following my directions as I told him where to turn. The car sped down the road, along with all the others, going far over the speed limit; many times I believed we would crash into the back of the car a head of us. “What’s happening?” I asked again as we approached the guard booth. Paul was nowhere in sight. Just a moment ago everything was normal, I was upset that my spot was being destroyed, and now… Now I didn’t know what was happening. What was happening? Why was no one answering me?
“I’m not sure, but they wouldn’t play that warning for no reason. That specific siren is reserved for emergencies such as an invasion or an air strike. Now where do we go?” As he pulled the car haphazardly into the street, I pointed to my house. Every house in the base was equipped with a bunker (off the side of our basement), and if this was an air strike and that’s where we were to hide. More than anything I wanted to find Mom. We ran through the front door, dragging mud and grass in with us, and headed to my basement.
“Mom! Mom!” I called, holding my breath as we descended the stairs two steps at a time. The lights were on but Mom had a bad habit of leaving them on, so that was no indication. My heart thumped in my ears and adrenaline pumped through me, the thought of losing my mother was too much for me even to consider.